Friday, December 18, 2009


There are many theories as to the origin of the word "shlemiel" - an unlucky, clumsy person. (I'll stick with this spelling over "schlemiel" - although there are as many spellings as there are explanations as to its origin. As Rosten writes in Hooray for Yiddish, page 286, "In Hebrew and Yiddish, the sing letter shin represents the sh sound; to begin an English word with sch is to call for the sk sound, as in 'school' or 'scheme'.")

First of all, it's important to understand how the word entered English. Despite some discussion to the contrary, it's clear that the word entered German from Yiddish, and not the other way around. It became popularized in German via the 1814 story "Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte" ("Peter Schlemihl's Remarkable Story") by Adelbert von Chamisso. However, English apparently adopted the word shlemiel directly from Yiddish, not via German. (It is still used in German, and even the name of the Sesame Street muppet Lefty is "Schlemihl" in the German version).

Now to the Yiddish origins. I'll admit from the outset that I don't know the "true" origin, and I doubt any of us ever will. But I will review the various theories and tell you which seem more or less likely to me.

1) Even-Shoshan suggests that it is a corruption of the similar Yiddish word shlimazel (or schlimazel). Schlemazel is a combination of the German schlim (= "bad, crooked", related to the English "slim" ) and the Hebrew mazal מזל (= "luck").

However, the two words seem to be distinct, and are often paired together, as in the famous saying, "The shlemiel pours soup on the shlimazel" (and in the opening song of "Laverne and Shirley".)

2) Klein (in his entry for the Hebrew equivalent shelumiel שלומיאל) writes that it is "probably a transposition of shelo mo'il שלא מועיל (= useless)."

But a number of objections have been raised to this theory. I found two on the "Mendele: Yiddish literature and language" list archives. One is that while the phrase shelo mo'il is found fairly frequently in Talmudic Hebrew (and later), it "is suited for situations, acts, attempts at correction -- but not people." Another writer points out that

we would expect shelo mo'il to give something like *shloyml or *shlemoyl (the asterisk is used to indicate a form that does not exist).  Since that is NOT what we find in Yiddish, the etymology in question cannot be accepted.
3) The most popular explanation is that shlemiel comes from the Biblical Shelumiel ben Tzurishadai שלומיאל בן צורישדי - the prince of the tribe of Shimon (Bamidbar 1:6, 2:12, 7:36, 10:19).  How did he become associated with the classic unfortunate bungler? There are a number of theories here as well:

a) One theory is based on the Talmud's claim (Sanhedrin 82b) that Shelumiel was one of the five names of Zimri, the prince of Shimon killed by Pinchas for sinning with a Midianite princess. Ignoring the fact that Shelumiel and Zimri lived a generation apart, Zimri doesn't seem "unfortunate" but "bad"! Why should the nickname come from him?

Rabbi Norman Lamm wrote an essay in 1974, called "The First Schelmihl". He claims that the shlemiel is not "hapless, luckless, a constant victim of conspiring circumstances", but rather is "sinister", "egotistical", and "will let no one and nothing stand in his way". While Lamm's homelitcal message is very powerful, it's hard for me to believe that the average person would make that jump, and understand that a real shlemiel is so evil. It just doesn't fit with the the way the word is used.

On the other hand, there are those that say that Zimri was unlucky, because while many were involved with the Midianites, he was the only one to get caught. But as Lamm pointed out, Zimri was clearly of a higher standing than the average person, and as the Talmud itself mentions, Zimri's act was as much of a rebellion against Moses as it was submission to passion.

Another question can be asked: if Zimri, for whatever reason, was the archetypal shlemiel, then why aren't we calling people zimris instead? One suggestion is that this was a private joke of the rabbis, to avoid recalling the improper nature of Zimri's act. Here too, I have difficulty accepting the idea that this kind of "conspiracy" would stick well enough to enter the popular jargon. In any case, the Talmud always refers to the culprit as Zimri, not Shelumiel, even such folksy sayings as "Their deeds are like those of Zimri, yet they ask for reward like Pinchas", so it doesn't seem likely that Zimri is our shlemiel.

b) A different theory suggests a connection between the unsuccessful fate of the tribe of Shimon (they were one of the smallest, didn't succeed in conquering their land) and "shlemiel". But again - it's a nice theory, but why use the name Shelumiel? (Rosten says in The Joys of Yiddish that Shelumiel was a general of Shimon who lost his battles, but then corrects himself in Hooray for Yiddish, choosing to follow the Zimri connection instead.)

c) Perhaps the most plausible Shelumiel theory that I've heard (first from my teacher Mitch Heifetz z"l) is mentioned here:

One suggestion relates to the arcane permutations of the Hebrew calendar. On Hanukkah a different section of Numbers 7 is recited daily, recounting the gifts of the tribal chieftains who each brought a daily offering at the dedication of the Tabernacle (mishkan). On the first day of Hanukkah, the first chieftain’s name appears at the beginning, on the second day the second chieftain’s name, and so on. (On the eighth day, the gifts of chieftains 8-12 are read.)

The exception is the Sabbath during Hanukkah, when the Torah portion is that of the regular weekly cycle and the added maftir reading from a second scroll is the Hanukkah reading beginning with the daily chieftain. Only one day of Hanukkah’s eight never falls on a Sabbath: the fifth day. And which chieftain therefore never stars on the Sabbath, when the synagogue is far better attended than on a midwinter weekday morning? Why, Shelumiel ben Tsurishaddai, of course. Who else?
While this does seem somewhat complicated, I can see how an average person might have noticed the fifth night's bad luck year after year (for a more positive take, see this Treppenwitz post.) However, Werner Weinberg (who taught us how to spell Chanukah here) writes in his Die Reste des Jüdischdeutschen that the first mention of this theory is in Halozebichel (Joke Book) of Rabbi Meir Ohnesorg, Prague 1864, p. 62. I couldn't find that book anywhere, but it seems possible that the whole etymology was just a joke.

d) The last Shelumiel connection isn't a real theory at all, but still is important to mention. Heinrich Heine in his poem "Jehuda ben Halevy" writes that he heard the following "version" of the story from his friend Julius Eduard Hitzig (who, incidentally, was also friends with Chamisso):

But a legend amongst the people
Has been orally transmitted
Which denies that it was Zimri
Whom the spear of Phinehas slew.

And maintains that, blind with passion,
Phineas slew the transgressor,
but another who was guiltless --
Slew Schlemihl ben Zuri Schadday

This is clearly not what the Torah is describing, nor does it appear in any midrash. But it seems to have a lot of influence, and perhaps the very association of Shelumiel and shlemiel began with Heine (or Hitzig).

4) The last theory is presented by Leopold Löw (the father of Immanuel, who I've quoted often) in his book Die Lebensalter in der jüdischen Literatur (page 54). But instead of relating to a somewhat obscure biblical character, he find someone much closer to the age of Yiddish. In the responsa of the Maharil (1365 – 1427), he finds mention of a Rabbi named Shlomil (or perhaps Shlomel, likely a nickname for Shlomo or Shalom) of Enns, Austria, who had an unusual story:

וכן העיד שמה"ר שלומיל מעיר ענש הלך פעם אחת ללמוד למרחקים, ויהי לתקופת י"א חדשים ליציאתו ילדה אשתו והכל מעידין מרוב חסידותה ברור שלא זינתה תחתיו.

"And so testified Rabbi Shlomil of the city of Enns, that he once traveled far to study, and eleven months after he left his wife gave birth. But all know, that due to her righteousness, she clearly did not cheat on him [but rather had an unusually long pregnancy as mentioned in the Talmud, Yevamot 80b]"

Now while the Maharil clearly did not bring this story to make fun of Rabbi Shlomil (he quotes the same rabbi as his teacher in a number of other cases), but it is very possible that others did not view him with the same level of respect. Perhaps he was the classic case of someone who was in "the wrong place, at the wrong time"...

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Growing up in America, one of my clearest memories from Chanukah was getting those foil wrapped chocolate coins - "gelt". Gelt means "money" in Yiddish, and there was an earlier custom of giving actual money on Chanukah (note that in Hebrew it is called דמי חנוכה  dmei chanuka - "Chanukah money). How did this custom develop? There are a number of suggestions:

a) for use when playing with the dreidel
b) it was first associated with giving charity on Chanukah, perhaps to help the poor buy candles
c) it was originally a gift to teachers, because of the connection between Chanukah and chinuch (education)

However, I'm partial to the explanation that the first Jewish coins were produced during Hasmonean times, and the custom to give out money came to commemorate that. Is it historically true - I don't really know. But since my kids happened to find this Hasmonean coin at an archaeological dig in Jerusalem earlier this year, I certainly have an emotional connection!

 What ever the reason - and please read this very funny article by Amy Klein about the development of giving both monetary and chocolate gelt - the custom has certainly become associated with Chanukah.

However, there's a little more to the story. If you had asked me not long ago, I would have guessed that gelt is related to "gold". But as we've seen here many times before, looks can be deceiving. Gelt has the following etymology:
Yiddish geld < MHG (a late-19th-c. borrowing): orig. (16th c.) < Ger or Du geld, but fell out of use except dialectically
Geld (as a noun, the verb has a different origin) appears in English as well, and derives from the German as well:
"royal tax in Medieval England," O.E. gield "payment, tribute" (cf. M.H.G. gelt "payment, contribution," Ger. geld "money," O.N. gjald "payment," Goth. gild "tribute, tax"), from PIE base of yield
Gold has an entirely different etymology - it comes from the Indo-European root *ghel, meaning "yellow".

But we do find more English words related to gelt. For example, guild:
c.1230, yilde (spelling later infl. by O.N. gildi), a semantic fusion of O.E. gegyld "guild" and gild, gyld "payment, tribute, compensation," from P.Gmc. *gelth- "pay" (cf. O.Fris. geld "money," O.S. geld "payment, sacrifice, reward," O.H.G. gelt "payment, tribute"). The connecting sense is of a tribute or payment to join a protective or trade society.
 And there may be a connection to what some might view as a very Jewish word, guilt:
O.E. gylt "crime, sin, fault, fine," of unknown origin, though some suspect a connection to O.E. gieldan "to pay for, debt," but O.E.D. editors find this "inadmissible phonologically.
I found this article about the history of gelt called "Gelt is Good". I assume they were trying to make a pun on "Guilt is Good" (which itself is a take off on the famous movie line "Greed is Good.") But I'm guessing that editor never thought that there was a possible etymological connection between the two words...

Friday, December 11, 2009

treif and taraf

We previously looked at glatt, which went from describing a particular stringency regarding the lungs of cows, to describing extra kosher food in general. A similar example can be found in the word terefah טרפה, which in the Torah (as in Shmot 22:30) refers to an animal whose "flesh (was) torn by beasts in the field." The root טרף means "torn to pieces". In Talmudic Hebrew, the meaning of terefah was extended to mean "a clean animal inflicted with an organic defect, a mortal injury, or a fatal disease" (Sarna on Shmot 22:30, see also Kehati's introduction to Hullin 3:1).  And later, the term expanded to include all non-kosher food, and the adjective taref טרף was adopted (Klein points out that this is a "back formation from terefah, which was regarded as a feminine adjective.) From taref, we got the Yiddish treif, which can mean anything not "kosher", even non-food items.

But as we mentioned above, the original meaning of the verb as "to tear away." In Biblical Hebrew teref could also mean food in general, such as in the phrases טֶרֶף, נָתַן לִירֵאָיו - "He gives food to those that fear Him" (Tehillim 111:5) and וַתִּתֵּן טֶרֶף לְבֵיתָהּ  - "She provides food for her household" (Mishlei 31:15). Certainly neither case is talking about treyf food!

A related sense of טרף is "to mix, confuse". The Talmudic term for a beaten egg is ביצה טרופה - beitza terufa. A person who is mixed up, disturbed, confused is  מטורף metoraf - which in Modern Hebrew means "insane". And just as in English, where the word "mad" means insane, but "like mad" means "with excitement or enthusiasm", so too does metoraf mean in Israeli slang not only "crazy", but "excited, exceptional, unbelievable" and בטירוף b'teruf means "with excitement."

But there's a similar sounding slang term that isn't actually related to the root טרף that we've discussed so far: אטרף atraf. It means "great excitement" (Rosenthal) and Milon Morfix actually defines it as "craziness, insanity; hysteria, stress". However, it derives from an Arabic word meaning "rare" or "interesting". Stahl writes that in Literary Arabic, tarf means "eye", and the verb means "to stare, gaze, glance". From here developed the meaning "to look at something new", and tarif means "new, rare, interesting" (the English word tariff is not related). Another aspect came out of the sense of looking from the corner of the eye, and taraf can mean "periphery, extreme, end, side, coast". From this Arabic word, the Spanish cape of Trafalgar got its name - Tarf al-Gharb (Cape of the West) or Tarf al-Ghar (Cape of the Cave). (The 1805 Battle of Trafalgar is commemorated in London's famous Trafalgar Square.)

This got me thinking - are there any Hebrew words cognate to this Arabic root? It looks like there's a good chance. In Bereishit 8:11, we find the following phrase: וְהִנֵּה עֲלֵה-זַיִת טָרָף בְּפִיהָ. "And there, in its bill, was a taraf olive leaf." Some commentaries, such as Rashi, explain taraf as a verb, meaning "plucked", relating it to our earlier understanding of taraf as "torn". But according to Cassuto, this is a difficult explanation, and we should rather view taraf as an adjective meaning "fresh", which is cognate to our Arabic root meaning "new". Cassuto claims that this is the view of most commentaries, and I have seen it in Ben-Yehuda, Kaddari and Daat Mikra.

So we've gone from an animal with a fatal disease, to a fresh, new leaf. Pretty metoraf, no?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009


We've just discussed mehadrin - now let's look at that other word for "super kosher": glatt.

I once read an article where the writer was unhappy about the phenomenon where children would become more strict in their kosher food requirements than their parents were. This made it difficult for the children to eat in their parents' home. He then complained, "Honoring your father and mother is a Torah law - and glatt is only a Yiddish word!"

Without going into the debate of that article, lets look at that "Yiddish word." It means "smooth" in Yiddish, and refers to the lungs of a cow (therefore it technically does not apply to chicken, or even lamb, and certainly not to dairy food, despite labels like this.) The Sefardim were strict about the "smooth" lungs, whereas Ashkenazi halacha did not require it. This actually explains why the Yiddish term glatt became more popular - only Ashkenazim needed a special word for their extra stringency. The parallel Hebrew word is chalak חלק. However, whereas chalak still refers to the state of the animals lungs, in Hebrew, as in English, glatt has spread to mean "extra kosher".

The Yiddish (and Modern German) glatt come from the Middle High German glat, which in turn derives from the Indo-European root *ghledho, meaning "bright, smooth". From here we get the English word glad, as well as the Latin word for sword - gladius, more familiar by the name of its carrier - the gladiator. However, the gladiator was more concerned that his sword be smooth than the lungs of his victims...

Monday, December 07, 2009

mehadrin and hadran

Today the word mehadrin מהדרין is generally associated with “super” kosher food (or even bus lines…). But the word actually first appears in the laws of Chanukah, in Masechet Shabbat 21b. There it says that if one lights a candle for each member of the household it is considered mehadrin, and if one adds (or subtracts) additional candles each night, it is considered hamehadrin min hamehadrin. There are two explanations to this term (see this article for an explanation of the significance of the two opinions). The one more popularly accepted is that of Rabbeinu Yitzchak in Tosafot, who say that the word derives from the root הדר, connected to the Biblical hadar, glory (cognate to the Akkadian adaru, and related to the Hebrew adir  אדיר - "noble"). According to Rabbeinu Yitzchak, when we add the additional candles, we glorify the mitzva, as we find with other mitzvot – the concept of hidur mitzva (beautifying the mitzva).

But Rashi has a different explanation. He says that mehadrin is related to the Aramaic verb הדר, meaning “to return”. This root is related, through familiar consonant changes, to the  Hebrew roots חדר (to surround, enclose; not actually related to חדר cheder - "room")  and  חזר (to go around, return, court). So Rashi explains that the person who is mehadrin, is "going around", pursuing the mitzvot. (See Brachot 53b for the parallel Hebrew expression - שמחזרים על המצוות - which is actually followed by an Aramaic translation: מהרדנא).

Another word with a similar debate as to its origin and meaning is hadran הדרן – from the passage read at the completion of a tractate of the Talmud: הדרן עלך .. והדרך עלן hadran alach ... v'hadrach alan.  (Eventually the passage itself became known as the "hadran", which led to the modern Hebrew meaning “encore”). Here, the common explanation is that it means “return”, and therefore the phrase means, “we will return to you, and you will return to us” (as mentioned by the Sefer HaEshkol). However, a number of researchers, such as Margolies (Olelot and Nitzotzei Or), Lieberman (Alei Ayin) and Sperber (Minhagei Yisrael vol 1; see an English summary in chapters 19 and 20 here) claim that hadran derives from hadar - “glory”, and so the phrase means, “our glory to you, and your glory to us.” This is both based on explicit mentions by earlier rabbis (such as the brother of the Maharal, Rav Chaim) as well as similar Talmudic passages: in Sukkah 45a it says that at the end of the Hoshanot on Sukkot, they would say to the altar: יופי לך המזבח - "beauty is yours, altar" and in Rosh Hashana 31a, it says that at the end of the Musaf sacrifices they would say הזיו לך - "the splendor is yours" (this phrase is actually included in the "hadran" of the Akedat Yitzhak). A similar phrase is also found in the Shir HaKavod ("Anim Zemirot") - פארו עלי ופארי עליו - "His glory is on me, and my glory is on him". In the end, Sperber concludes that the original meaning may have been "return", and the sense of "glory" was added in the times of the Geonim, so that the phrase intentionally carried both meanings.

One interpretation (Rashi, Kaddari) of the the unique biblical term hadurim הדורים (Yeshayahu 45:2) is that it means "curvy paths" - and is also related to the root הדר as "return, go around". The phrase from that verse -  וַהֲדוּרִים אֲיַשֵּׁר (straighten out the curvy paths, according to the explanation I quoted), is used in conversational Hebrew to mean "iron out the difficulties."

There’s no question about the origin of the word mahadura מהדורה, meaning “edition”. It comes from the Aramaic מהדורא, which is simply the Aramaic form of the Hebrew “machzor” מחזור. Both of which mean a “cycle, period of time”, and derive from the cognates הדר/חזר (see that usage in Bava Batra 157b). However, in modern Hebrew (even predating Ben Yehuda), mahadura came to refer to an edition of a printed work (now it also means a newscast), whereas machzor can mean any recurring event in the calendar, or the prayerbook used on holidays (originally it was interchangeable with siddur, but in time the siddur became designated for daily and weekly use). So you can actually use a particular mahadura of the machzor without the phrase seeming redundant…